The Houston Texans' record last season resulted in many of their standout players existing under the radar. The best example: Zach Cunningham.
"Zach, he's a great athlete," new Texans linebacker Christian Kirksey said. "He's one of the better linebackers in this league. I think he's a little underrated, man.
Entering his fifth-year since being drafted out of Vanderbilt, Cunningham is a playmaker. During his rookie season, he recorded 90 total tackles. Every year since, he's tallied over 100, including a league-high 164 in 2020.
Was he rewarded for his efforts as the leader of a sub-par defense? Those are Pro Bowl or even All-Pro numbers in any regular season. But no, Cunningham saw none of those accolades come his way.
Maybe the mainstream media doesn't view Cunningham as a special asset.
His new teammates, though, do.
Said Kirksey: "You know, people don't talk about him as much as they should. You can see that he flies around, and he goes out there and he makes plays."
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If anyone knows a thing or two about tackling, it's Kirksey. He's hit over 100 combined tackles in a single season twice during his seven years in the league.
As the first week of practice comes to a close, Kirksey and Cunningham could be a 1-2 combination for new coordinator Lovie Smith's defense. The race to 100 stops could motivate each of them to better their play on Sunday afternoons.
"It's been a great experience working with him and I'm trying to push him to be the best that he can be, and vice versa," Kirksey said. "He pushed me to become the best that I can be, and we can become a great linebacker corps."
It'll take more than two guys to fix a unit that finished 2020 with the 30th-ranked unit in total yards allowed. But maybe Houston has more than two, as Kirksey seems impressed with the other players general manager Nick Caserio has brought in.
That, plus a new scheme, might benefit Houston.
"Man, we got some guys out there that can run," Kirksey said. "I think that the organization did a great job of putting this team together, putting this defense together and matched it very well with Lovie Smith. Lovie is a guy that he puts his defense in a position to win, puts his defense in a position to make plays at all levels and that's something that I'm learning about this defense, is everybody has a chance to make plays.
"And when you have that, it's a lot of fun."
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